You’ve seen the classic movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, right? The story of how an empty Coke bottle thrown out of a light airplane changes the fates and fortunes of a band of bush people living in the Kalahari? It’s probably one of the funniest movies ever, but of course you aren’t really allowed to throw things out of an airplane, right?
Well… Actually… It’s perfectly legal. Here in the USA we are bound by the Federal Aviation Regulations, called FARs by pilots. The FARs take up quite a few pages of dead trees or megabytes of disc space, but buried in part 91, section 15 we find this delightful tidbit:
No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.
So don’t throw your Coke bottle out over the Super Bowl, but the Kalahari (or its American equivalent) is probably fair game. So it’s legal, but still, pilots don’t really throw things out of airplanes, do they? Absolutely we do! Most commonly, paper sacks of flour and—believe it or not—rubber chickens.
Yup. Precision object dropping, a.k.a. “bombing” is a competitive sport at many small airshows. Not that I’ve ever done it. But when I got the email saying that there was to be a rubber chicken drop contest as part of the annual Ercoupe Owner’s Club meeting, I was all over the concept, and determined to win. But having never done it before, I knew we needed to practice. So I filed a flight plan straight to eBay and searched for rubber chickens, where I discovered there were dozens of models in a full range of sizes. Apparently, rubber chickens are as varied as airplanes.
So I emailed the conference organizer to ask what kind of chickens we’d be using, and responded saying, “You have got to be frickin’ kidding me, right?”
In the end, I bought the most common type, assuming this would be the closest thing to a “regulation” chicken. About a week later a package of eight Gallus gallus domesticus plasticuses arrived on my doorstep and our first problem became apparent. Do we drop them out of the plane beak first or talon first?
To save time, and Avgas, we decided to start close to home.
Yes, we spent an afternoon dropping rubber chickens off the roof of our house to study their aerodynamics. Much like real chickens, it turns out that rubber chickens have no aerodynamics whatsoever, exhibiting a high propensity to spin beak over talon, regardless of drop orientation. Still, it seemed they fell a tiny bit more smoothly when dropped beak first.
And yes, my wife was convinced that I’d fall off the roof and spin beak over talon to the ground myself, but it didn’t happen.
Next, I enlisted the help of my college professor friend Lisa, as I knew we were in for some math. After all, if you drop something out of an airplane traveling 90 miles per hour, the object is initially also traveling 90 miles per hour. This means it won’t just fall straight down where you drop it. Instead, it will strike the ground “down range.”
Lisa crunched the math and told me with great confidence that bombardier Rio should release the chicken 747.58 feet up range of the target. Apparently she did a lot of multiplication of fractions to get the units to cancel out, whatever that means, and said that knowing that the speed of gravity is G=9.8m/s2, the calculations, according to Lisa, were, “Simpler than I originally thought.”
Of course, I had no way in hell of knowing how to tell when the plane was 747.58 feet from the target. I was too busy trying to figure out how to put the target on Rio’s side of the plane while still trying to place the plane over the target.
Then Lisa went on to point out that the complicated math only works in a vacuum and doesn’t take into consideration drag or ambient wind direction that will slow the chicken down and modify its trajectory in its 5.6-second plummet to Mother Earth.
Clearly, this was going to take some trial and error.
We tied six-foot lengths of red surveyor’s tape onto the chicken’s legs to increase their visibility when dropped, and headed out to the airport. We laid a tarp down in the center of the empty apron to serve as a target (one of the advantages of being based at a lightly-used airport).
Then, Rio and I loaded up the bomb bay…
Lisa stationed herself at her observation post atop the jet fuel tank on the apron…
Wearing a helmet to protect her noggin from falling chickens…
And aloft we went. We reached 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL), slowed to 90 miles an hour… Well, OK, you got me, that’s our normal speed throttle to the firewall… leveled our wings and made our first bombing run. At what I judged to be exactly 747.58 feet up range I gave Rio the command, “Drop, drop, drop!” and in a flutter of red plastic tape he shoved a rubber chicken out the window. Poof! In a flash it was gone. I banked steeply to the right to try to catch a glimpse of our ordinance, but spied nothing.
I keyed the mike button on my yoke, “Chicken air to chicken ground, how’d we do?”
There was a long silence.
Then Lisa’s voice cracked through her handheld radio, “I think you missed the airport.”
“Say again,” I transmitted, “we missed the apron?”
“Uh… no,” said Lisa, “I said you missed the airport. Completely.”
Rio and I looked at each other in disbelief. “Uh… roger that. We’ll release closer to target on the next run.” I did a lazy 360-degree turn and rolled out for a second bombing run.
On that first day of “practice,” we dropped six rubber chickens. How many hit the target? Uhh… not one. Four fell outside the airport fences and two, we think, fell somewhere inside the perimeter fences. Maybe.
How many rubber chickens did we recover? Uhh… not one.
After six bombing runs we landed and tramped the weedy grounds of the airport until sunset, trying to back-walk compass headings Lisa recorded from the observations she made on her lofty perch. No joy. We didn’t find a single one. They disappeared as completely as Flight 19 did in the Bermuda Triangle.
But we did find a horseshoe. Which I took to be a good omen. I hung it up in the hangar as we clearly need all the luck we can get.
Six drops. Six losses. But I wasn’t giving up. That night, back home, I flew back to eBay to re-stock my bomb bay.
Next time, on Plane Tales, will this Chicken Outfit get better at bombing?